Why Lance Stephenson Will Prove to Be a Free-Agent Steal for Charlotte Hornets

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 17, 2014

The Charlotte Hornets' first home-run hack of the offseason came up empty, but they stayed in the box, waited for their pitch and finally connected on a moonshot signing of versatile swingman Lance Stephenson.

As Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer first reported, the two sides agreed to a three-year pact whereby Stephenson will "make $9 million each of the first two seasons and $9.4 million if the Hornets keep him for 2016-17."

There are risks involved with committing major coin to the man christened "Born Ready" at Harlem's famed Rucker Park.

He comes with plenty of baggage, as his on-court antics and off-court troubles have been well-documented.

However, his price tag reflected his potential for disaster—almost to an unbelievable degree in this market:

As ESPN Insider Amin Elhassan (subscription required) explained, Charlotte designed this deal to maximize the impact of Stephenson's arrival and mitigate the chance that this takes a wrong turn:

The key to this deal for Charlotte was the structure of the contract: at $9 million flat for the next two years, the Hornets are clearly taking a risk that Stephenson will continue to mature and earn his salary, with Michael Jordan taking on the role of Larry Bird as sage mentor who will kick the 23-year-old in the backside when necessary. However, the third year is a team option, so this simultaneously gives the Hornets a 'carrot' to dangle in front of Stephenson. It's a nice mix of incentive and punishment.

The end result is a compromise for both sides, neither of which initially planned on teaming together.

Stephenson told USA Today he wanted to stay with the Indiana Pacers, but ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard noted that their five-year, $44 million contract offer was lower—and longerthan he wanted to go.

"It wasn't really about the money," Stephenson's agent, Alberto Ebanks, told The Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner. "(But) If it's going to be too little then don't let it be too long because you're losing on both ends."

If Stephenson can further separate himself from his checkered past, he could wind up securing a deal far more in line with his production.

According to NBA.com's Adam Zagoria, a shortened path back to the open market held major appeal for that reason:

For the Hornets, Stephenson technically served as Plan B. Charlotte first set its sights on restricted free agent Gordon Hayward only to have the Utah Jazz match its four-year, $63 million offer sheet.

As far as consolation prizes go, Stephenson is something of a Powerball jackpot. He brings Plan A production at a Plan C price.

On the floor, he could thrive in any situation. He has the stat sheet of a jack-of-all-trades—only he, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Nicolas Batum averaged at least 13 points, seven boards and four assists per game last season—yet he may have mastered several of them.

He's an elite rebounder for his size (6'5") and position (shooting guard).

His 11.4 rebounding percentage last season was the best among guards by a considerable margin. The gap between him and the second player on that list (Michael Carter-Williams, 9.8) was as big as the one separating the No. 2 and No. 9 spots (Alonzo Gee, 8.2).

Over the last 10 seasons, only current Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd has had a higher single-season rebounding percentage of all players 6'5" or shorter (minimum 60 games played).

With a combination of speed, strength, New York City toughness and a disruptive 6'10.5" wingspanDraft Express indicates that's long for a shooting guardhe has both the physical and mental tools to be a lockdown defender.

The stat sheet wouldn't disagree with that label.

Stephenson was one of only four players—along with Joakim Noah, Paul George and DeAndre Jordan—to play at least 2,700 minutes last season and have a defensive rating under 102 (101).

Noah was named Defensive Player of the Year, and George earned All-Defensive First Team honors. Jordan was left off the All-Defensive team rosters but did finish third in the DPOY voting.

Stephenson held opponents to just a 38.4 field-goal percentage, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). According to 82games.com, opposing shooting guards managed only an 11.0 player efficiency rating against him, which is well below the league-average mark of 15.0.

Teams might have chemistry and character concerns about him, but it's hard to argue against him being an impact player regardless of where he landed.

The fit he found in Charlotte, though, couldn't be more perfect—at least from a basketball standpoint.

The Hornets snapped a three-year playoff drought last season largely on the strength of their defense. Coach Steve Clifford installed a simplified scheme built to limit an opponent's transition opportunities, second-chance buckets and free throws.

After finishing 30th in defensive efficiency during each of the previous two seasons, Charlotte climbed all the way to sixth and surrendered only 101.2 points per 100 possessions.

However, the team's defensive gains were nearly undone by a stagnant offense that relied heavily on Al Jefferson's low-post production.

Jefferson masterfully played the role of offensive anchor, pouring in 21.8 points per game on 50.9 percent shooting. There was only so much he could do, though. Charlotte put up just 101.2 points per 100 possessions, which was the seventh-fewest in the league.

Kemba Walker tried to help lighten the load, but he was left walking a fine line as the team's top setup man and one of its best scorers.

He tried to balance both roles but never looked fully comfortable with either.

He put up 17.7 points a night, but his 39.3 field-goal percentage was by far the lowest of the 46 players who averaged 17-plus points. He doled out 6.1 assists per game but ranked 20th overall with a 2.64 assist-to-turnover ratio.

The Hornets needed an offensive lift and appear to have found it with Stephenson.

Although not a knock-down shooter, he's better than what Charlotte had on its wings. And his ability to create scoring chances will help Walker get more selective with his own.

"Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are nice players, but MKG is in the midst of a full-blown shot reconstruction, and Henderson can't reliably shoot from deep or create off the bounce," Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote. "Stephenson would provide some juice for an offense that needs it, as well as ensure that Kemba Walker isn't overburdened."

Stephenson is still in the early stages of his development. He's spent four seasons in the league but didn't become a full-time player until 2012-13.

He needs plenty of polishing but is worth the investment. He can help alleviate so many of Charlotte's problems now, and that's before he starts adding new elements to his game.

"The warts in Stephenson's game—the not-quite-knockdown shooting, the looseness on the handle, the overly ambitious decision-making, etc.—are the kinds of things that young players can improve and minimize," Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine noted.

Stephenson had a compelling All-Star case last season. If that's the player the Hornets are getting, it's a tremendous value.

If he creates more headaches than buckets, Charlotte is out a relatively small amount of cap space for two seasons. Given his defensive versatility, though, you'd think the Hornets could find a trade partner if it derailed that badly.

And if Born Ready finally realizes his massive potential? Then, the Hornets just got away with larceny.

Team owner Michael Jordan talked a big game heading into this summer, and he delivered. Stephenson might be a notable name for the wrong reasons, but that could all be changing soon.

With Walker running point, Jefferson manning the middle and Stephenson wreaking two-way havoc on the wing, the Hornets are primed to secure a second straight postseason ticket.

If Charlotte's young pieces (Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller, Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston) elevate themselves over the summer, the Hornets could fare far better than a one-and-done playoff appearance.

Given the major personnel changes in the Eastern Conference, this could be the time to strike. Provided the Hornets get the "Good Lance," they'll be well-positioned to keep climbing the standings.


Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.


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